Toronto FC return from the international break this weekend with a trip to Ohio to face FC Cincinnati on Saturday night.
On the heels of a difficult month that closed with an underhanded loss away to CF Montreal, TFC will be looking to close out the regular season with a strong push.
The two weeks away from action was much needed.
“We got a little break,” said Tsubasa Endoh after training on Thursday. “We are refreshed, we are recharged. We came back this week and it's been good. The energy in the locker room is very good.”
Though several players were away with their respective nations, Javier Perez has put the extra time on the training pitch to good use.
“We've been working on a couple of things,” began the head coach. “One is moving the ball fast, adjusting to the fast transitions. We were good in possession in the past few weeks, but we need to get the ball faster into the attacking half if we want to score goals, especially since we didn't have strikers.”
“Jozy [Altidore] and Ayo [Akinola] out really hurt the team, Dom [Dwyer] as well,” he highlighted. “If you're losing three of your top strikers you have to find other ways to score, so we have been working on moving the ball faster and quicker transitions.”
“And then the second part is how to keep the team organized defensively,” Perez added. “How to reduce the gaps so we don't give the opportunity for them to receive the balls in between lines.”
Twelve games remain in the regular season.
September will see five of them, October a further six, before decision day on November 7.
Up first is a stretch of six matches from Saturday to October 3 when MLS pauses once more for another international break.
TFC travel to Cincinnati, host Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC, before heading to the Colorado Rapids, and then close with two more at home: against Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire.
18 points, every game a ‘must win’.
“It was always a ‘must win’ situation for us since I was appointed head coach,” levelled Perez. “It's even more urgent right now. It's a game against a direct rival: we need the three points.”
“And that's the idea: we have 18 points to fight [for] in this stretch of games that goes all the way to October 3 against against Chicago,” he continued. “Very, very important games and the team is in a good place mentally. Everybody has been working really hard during the international break and we are looking forward to jump again into one of the games and get the three points that is going to give us a little bit of joy to fight during this stretch of matches.”
There will be time to talk more fully about what happened this season when it is over. For now, there are games to be played.
“We just focus on what's going to come in the future. The past is past,” said Endoh. “In terms of that we’re positive about it, we have a busy stretch coming up, so everybody needs to be ready.”
“Anything can happen,” he reminded. “We believe in ourselves, we believe in each other, so we’re just going to keep going at it.”
The motivation is the same as always.
“We just go for three points,” simplified Endoh. “We want to win a game.”
“As a player nobody wants to lose, nobody wants to play to lose every game. It's that simple for me,” he added. “Every single person, every single player, in this organization wants to win every time they play. That doesn't change for me: just win the game every time you're on the field.”
TFC have faced Jaap Stam’s Cincinnati once this season, losing 2-0 in Orlando on June 26. It was Cincinnati’s first win in the all-time series, with Toronto taking the previous three encounters.
This will be the first at TQL Stadium, which opened in May.
“They have a brand new stadium, the crowd is going to be good, and we anticipate that they're going to come out strong as well, so we need to be ready for that,” forecast Endoh. “It's going to be much different from the last time we played them – in Orlando, without any fans in a stadium – it's going to be the total opposite this time.”
Like Toronto, Cincinnati find themselves on the outside of the playoff places looking in, as the available points remaining dwindle.
Between desperation and the sense that they are playing a wounded beast, expect this one to be intense.
“I expect a team that is very aggressive against us,” anticipated Perez. “We know these dynamics: when you are at the bottom, everybody thinks that you are a vulnerable team and they have to get the three points, so I expect that they are going to be very aggressive.”
“We know how they play, they have up front Brenner and [Luciano] Acosta,” he continued. “Brenner is more of a striker that moves in between lines, but gets inside the box and can finish. And Acosta is a very versatile player, very difficult to defend, he provides balls to the players up front.”
The Brazilian striker Brenner leads the side with five goals and Acosta’s six assists have him their most dangerous provider.
“[Isaac] Atanga is a winger that is almost like another striker and then on the other side they have [Alvaro] Barreal or [Florian] Valot,” expanded Perez. “Barreal played a really good game in the [last meeting], very good in control of the ball. We expect they are going to try to to go fast in transition, they are going to try to find their players in between lines, very much similar like many of the teams in the league.”
The addition of Geoff Cameron midway through the season has helped solidify their back-line – they have drawn seven of their last 12 outings since that June meeting, but still Cincinnati come into the match on the back of three straight defeats: 4-1 away to the New England Revolution, 3-2 at in-state rivals Columbus Crew, and 1-0 at home to Atlanta United.
“The vulnerable part for them is going to be the defensive side, they leave a bit of space in between lines, and that's the part we are going to try to to benefit from,” pinpointed Perez. “The three in midfield like to control the game with [Haris] Medunjanin, [Yuya] Kubo and [Allan] Cruz.”
“It’s going to be a very close game like most games in the league,” he levelled. “We will be ready for the game and expecting to fight for the three points.”